Miami made the big off-season moves, but as Dwight Howard and his Magic teammates see it, until the Heat wins the division, Florida's top team is in Orlando
This is an article from the Oct. 25, 2010 issue
Though they came into the NBA within a year of each other in the late 1980s and are separated by just 235 miles, the Magic and the Heat have never had much of a rivalry. They've met only once in the postseason, and memorable confrontations—or even instances of smack talking—have been few and far between. But that could be changing. In the aftermath of the decisions by LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in Miami, Floridians in the south celebrated while those up north responded with mockery and vitriol. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy called Bosh a "lapdog" for the way he followed Wade around, and general manager Otis Smith questioned James's competitiveness and traded barbs with Heat president Pat Riley. Orlando forward Quentin Richardson was more blunt. "F--- the Heat," he said, before adding, "with all due respect."
Respect—or, rather, a perceived lack of it—is what has so many people in Orlando wound up. While the Magic's off-season additions (Richardson and backup point guard Chris Duhon) pale in comparison with Miami's, the fact remains: Orlando has won the Southeast three years running. And with a nucleus of center Dwight Howard, shooting guard Vince Carter and point guard Jameer Nelson back, the Magic isn't about to concede the title or anything else to Miami.
Howard was his usual dominant self last season, averaging 18.3 points and a league-high 13.2 rebounds. But after Orlando fell to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, Howard—who was shut down in losses in Games 1 and 3, going 3 for 10 from the floor each time—resolved to diversify his arsenal. He hoisted thousands of jump shots in the off-season and worked with Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone on post moves. "Losing the way we did to Boston, it kind of pissed me off to the point that I didn't want our team to be looked at [as pushovers]," says Howard. "People were saying our team wasn't physical, and I didn't like that. I'm a physical player, and I want my teammates to be the same way."
The Magic's desire to add muscle next to Howard could lead to more minutes for Rashard Lewis at small forward. Since signing with the Magic three years ago, he has played primarily as a spindly power forward. Now he's dropped 10 more pounds to give him more of the mobility he'll need at the three—at 6'10", he weighs 230 pounds—while Van Gundy plans to give Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat increased minutes at the four. "The concern with [Lewis] playing the three is never at the offensive end," said Van Gundy. "It's whether he can guard the threes on the move in this league and chase through screens. It's a different set of expectations."
Miami is also dealing with new expectations. The Heat hasn't won a playoff series since beating the Mavericks in the 2006 Finals, but the acquisitions of James and Bosh make Miami instant contenders—and a marked team. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called LeBron James's nationally televised decision to leave Cleveland "the largest public humiliation in the history of sports." Phil Jackson likened Miami to the 1968--69 Lakers, a team that had Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor but still failed to win a championship. Charles Barkley decried the smoke-filled rally to welcome James and Bosh to South Beach as a "punk move," and he declared ESPN's around-the-clock coverage of the Heat "unprecedented ass-kissing."
"Seems like everybody has had their chance to take shots at this team," says Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "There has been an incredible amount of unfair criticism, a lot of it from people who don't know or don't understand. It's fine. This team was not built to go under the radar."
Under the radar? Miami couldn't hide out on a military base. Not that the team didn't try. In an effort to avoid the media crush at the Big Three's first training camp together, the Heat moved its base of operations 641 miles northwest to Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, where members of the press were required to provide their Social Security and driver's license numbers and to identify the location of "physical body changes or tattoos." Nonetheless, 250 members of the press were credentialed.
To counter the hype, Spoelstra has kept the message to his players simple: Be in shape and be prepared to defend. Everyone listened to the first part. Spoelstra said the team "blew him away" during the annual conditioning drill and that at least five players (including Wade) were in the best condition of their careers. To ramp up the defensive intensity, Spoelstra drew upon the competitive natures of James and Wade. In scrimmages the two were often put on opposite teams and asked to guard each other. "We hate to lose, and we especially hate to lose against each other," says James. "I think everyone saw that the last seven years. Here, we just give each other that look that's like, I got you today."
The biggest question facing the Heat is whether there will be enough shots to go around. Distributing the ball will be left to James and whoever emerges as the point guard. Last season Mario Chalmers was handed the starting spot out of training camp, only to have it taken in December after Miami started 11--11. Entering his third season, Chalmers has come into camp with a more professional mind-set. Over the summer he met with Rajon Rondo, who was in a similar position in 2007 when, as the Celtics' second-year playmaker, he was handed the reins of a team with veteran stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. "He told me not to back down," says Chalmers. "What happened last season was my fault. But I worked hard this summer and understand now that everything is not guaranteed. I feel like [starting point guard] is my spot to lose."
Point guard questions abound in the Southeast. Washington is handing its offense over to rookie John Wall, the No. 1 pick, out of Kentucky. (So far, so good. In his first five preseason games the 20-year-old Wall averaged 15.6 points and 8.4 assists.) The Bobcats will turn to D.J. Augustin after Raymond Felton, who last year led Charlotte to its first postseason appearance, signed with the Knicks. Memories of a promising rookie year quickly evaporated for Augustin, who began last season with a nagging abdominal injury and ended it with an engraved seat in Larry Brown's doghouse as the coach searched for more trustworthy options to back up Felton. Over the summer the team nearly pulled the trigger on a deal that would have yielded the Raptors' José Calderón, then tried to pry Devin Harris out of New Jersey. Now the Bobcats will entrust the position to Augustin, who has responded by packing five pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot frame, cutting his body fat and vowing to become a more vocal leader of an offense that ranked 28th in scoring and 29th in turnovers last year.
Likewise the Hawks will break in Jeff Teague, who averaged 3.2 points and 1.7 assists as Mike Bibby's backup last year. Bibby is still around, but Teague will play a more prominent role. "I told him this summer, I don't mind when he makes mistakes," says new coach Larry Drew. "I want him to play with the confidence and energy he had in college." To help him get there, Atlanta hired Nick Van Exel as an assistant, hoping some of the cocky former point guard's bravado will rub off on Teague. "Jeff has speed, he can break a defense down, and he is good defensively," says Drew. "We need to get him to a level where he can play substantial minutes on this team."
The offense Teague will be running should have a new look too. After years of the Iso-Joe offense—so named for the number of isolation plays called for Joe Johnson under ex-coach Mike Woodson—Drew has installed a more balanced motion system. "We want more player movement," says Drew. "We want more guys involved on offense. This will force the ball to move and get guys to play out of different reads and different cuts. The ball won't just stick on one side of the floor."
Teague, Wall and Augustin give the position a new look, but the top playmaker in the division may be the one who has been around the longest. Jameer Nelson's offensive output (12.6 points per game) dipped last season from his '08--09 All-Star level (16.6), but he ratcheted his game up in the postseason, blitzing Charlotte (23.8 points per game), Atlanta (17.3) and Boston (17.0) before the Magic bowed out. It's that strength at point guard and center—Miami's two weakest positions—that has Orlando feeling good about its chances in the intrastate rivalry. "We heard it all summer: The Miami Heat are going to win; they're going to do this and do that," says Howard. "In our minds we're like, Hey, they haven't played a game yet, so what makes them champions? They still have to dress up and play."
The Battle of Florida is on.